JACL is in Selma, Alabama this weekend to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 voting rights demonstrations and marches that led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act. The JACL delegation is attending the events with Todd Endo, a longtime JACLer who participated in the demonstrations in 1965 and covered the events in a series of articles for the Pacific Citizen Newspaper.
By Kota Mizutani and Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu
We saw the news while waiting to board our flights out of Birmingham. Video has surfaced of white college students gleefully chanting a horrifically racist song on a party bus. It is difficult to discern the exact words, but members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were proudly chanting what sounded like:
“You can hang ‘em from a tree…but there’ll never be a n***** SAE.”
For our final day in Selma, we woke up bright and early to avoid the traffic that halted our journey the day before. With the streets still relatively empty and the sun rising, we took our first walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Though only a handful of people were there, it was not hard to imagine a younger Todd Endo amongst a crowd of grave-faced protesters marching for human dignity. As more people trickled onto the bridge, we watched a silent march, led by two local pastors, of citizens protesting the continued inequality in Dallas County. Indeed, despite the world-changing events that took place there 50 years ago, Selma still appears to suffer from widespread economic depression, its schools and social clubs to nearly as racially segregated as they were half a century ago.
We paid short a visit to the Selma Interpretive Center, which houses a small exhibit on the 1965 Voting Rights March. In a large mural showcasing marchers in 1965, one can spot a curious banner: “Hawaii Knows that Integration Works.” Colorful leis decorated the shoulders of many of the protesters, including Dr. King himself. We bought commemorative t-shirts to support the development of a local youth center, then walked to the County Courthouse. Here, Todd recalled the stories of the black protesters who were brutalized by local authorities as they attempted to exercise their right to vote. Next, we paid a short visit to A.M.E. Brown Chapel, which served as a spiritual and physical refuge for the Selma marchers and Dr. King’s leadership team.
We brought with us the JACL banner’s and created posters that read “Commemoration Deserves Legislation,” “Asian Americans for Equality – Here in 1965, Here in 2015,” and “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” We met up with the other AAPI organizations present, where we met another man who marched in 1965, Vincent Wu. Todd and Vincent swapped memories and shared a warm reunion after fifty long years. Pushing through the throngs of thousands, we made our way into the thick of the crowd at the entrance of the bridge. There, we watched a live-stream of various speakers at a church service held at Brown chapel, including government officials, preachers, and community organizers. Attorney General Eric Holder made an especially memorable speech, where he drew parallels between 1965 and 2015. Reverend Al Sharpton observed that Jim Crow’s ugly legacy has changed, matured, not gone away – no longer is it Jim Crow, he remarked, but “James Crow, Jr., Esquire.”
Finally, the swarm of patient marchers – both young and old – began to move across the bridge, commemorating those who sacrificed so much to tread this path fifty years before. Different sections of those present broke out into spontaneous song and chants under the now burning sun. We in the AAPI contingent walked passed enthusiastic cheers and camera flashes from other marchers on the peak of the bridge. We shook so many hands and were asked a dozen times, “What is yellow peril?” We explained how we were there to demonstrate solidarity, to show that Japanese Americans and AAPIs care about the struggles of African Americans, then in 1965 and here in 2015.
As President Obama remarked in his speech in Selma this Saturday, “if you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the fifties.” Unlike the women and men who marched on Bloody Sunday, when our delegation arrived at the far end of the bridge we were met with not a mob of racial terrorists in police uniforms waiting to beat and trample us, but with cheers of other marchers. As we crossed the final threshold of Edmund Pettus bridge, we began to chant a promise of unity and hope: “the people. united. will never be defeated!”
There is little doubt in our minds that white segregationists in 1965 chanted something almost completely opposite this. In fact, as they rattled fists and Confederate flags, they probably shouted something similar to the disgusting chant that video recorded members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing, replacing the prohibition of pledging this fraternity with a promise to bar blacks from entering the voting booth. Too much was sacrificed by those who marched in Selma for this kind of behavior to be tolerated. Too much was lost for us to ignore the steady reality of the ongoing presence of white supremacy in this country, chalking incidents like this up to “oh, boys will be boys.”
Not every American needs to commit their entire career to organizing civil rights marches or furthering campaigns for social justice. However, at the very least, we can celebrate and remember the lives of Martin Luther King, Congressman John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Jim Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Jonathan Daniels, Todd Endo, Vincent Wu, and all those who sacrificed greatly to lead the charge for equality in 1965. It is incumbent upon us to preserve their legacy by fighting to ensure that the right to vote remains a guaranteed protection for all Americans.
Vote. Be aware. Protest. Disrupt. Speak up. Create solidarity. Stay critical. Stay woke.